F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
January 2005



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Underestimating the Consequences of Use of Nuclear Weapons:
Condemned to Repeat the Past’s Errors?

Lynn Eden

This article draws on Lynn Eden, Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004)

Seriously studied for almost sixty years, nothing would seem better understood than the effects and terrible consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.[i] Yet, surprisingly, for decades, one far-reaching effect—the mass fire damage caused by “firestorms”—was neither examined in depth nor widely understood. This matters because, for modern nuclear weapons, under almost all conditions and for many targets of interest, the range of devastation from mass fire substantially exceeds that of damage from blast. Once mass fire began to be studied analytically and through reanalysis of empirical experience, the quite well-developed findings were not widely accepted. There may be somewhat greater acceptance now, but, when it comes to nuclear operations, understanding by physicists is not enough. Knowledge has to be incorporated into organizational procedures, specifically, the algorithms used in strategic nuclear war planning.

There is currently a low level of effort to develop a methodology to predict collateral fire damage, but as of mid-October, 2004, fire damage prediction is still not incorporated into the U.S. strategic nuclear war plan --that is, as a mechanism of destruction for deliberately targeted forces and installations. There is no program underway to do so.[ii]

Underestimating the damage caused by nuclear weapons is an important part of the historical explanation for the inflated force requirements—“overkill”—that led the United States and Soviet Union to build nuclear arsenals in the tens of thousands of warheads. But underestimating damage matters importantly now as well. To paraphrase George Santayana, those who do not understand the past may well be condemned to repeat its errors.

Particularly salient today are regional conflicts in which a decision or threat to use nuclear weapons would in all likelihood be based on a severe underestimate of the damage that could result. Indeed, in the South Asian crisis of May 2002, the United States specifically sought to warn the leaders of India and Pakistan of the consequences of a nuclear exchange. However, a U.S. defense intelligence assessment prepared for that purpose was based on blast effects alone. The study estimated that twelve million people would be killed, but it did not include deaths from mass fire.[iii] If it had, the estimate would undoubtedly have been much higher.

Beyond the very important possibility of underestimating damage and death from nuclear weapons in the event of use, there are similar kinds of phenomena in which important aspects of the physical world are not well understood or, if understood, are not incorporated into political decisions and organizational procedures. Such phenomena are more common than might at first be thought.

In what follows, I first explain what I mean by mass fire. I then make some bald assertions, much more fully argued and documented in Whole World on Fire, about the predictability and range of mass fire. I very briefly summarize why predictions of mass fire damage were not developed for many years. I also briefly summarize how a small team, led by physicist Harold Brode at Pacific Sierra- Research, developed a methodology to predict nuclear fire damage. I explain what happened to that work. And I close by drawing out some implications for other areas of policy.

Mass fire is roughly synonymous with the more common term “firestorm”—though physicists tend to prefer the former term. A nuclear mass fire can occur in an area containing a fuel load typical of a city or suburb. A nuclear detonation would first cause myriad simultaneous ignitions over this large area. These fires would begin to coalesce and to heat an enormous volume of air that would rise. Like a gigantic bonfire, this rising hot air would cause cooler air near the surface to be sucked in from the periphery. This air would move at hurricane force toward the center, become superheated, and rise—causing additional hurricane winds to rush in from the periphery and further intensifying the mass fire. No one within the area would survive.[iv]

Such mass fires are fundamentally different from the famous fires that destroyed London, Chicago, and San Francisco, the vast forest fires of the late nineteenth century that swept the Great Lakes states, and the Cerro Grande fire that nearly destroyed Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1999. These were not mass fires, simultaneously set over vast areas, but large propagating “line fires.” Such line fires are highly destructive, but do not occur in the same time frame, nor with the scale and intensity, of a mass fire. The mass fire set at Hiroshima by a 15 kiloton atomic bomb, for example, completely burned out an area of 4.4 square miles within hours, not days.[v]

Some have argued that although nuclear mass fires could be highly destructive, they would be subject to weather and other conditions, and therefore cannot be reliably predicted. It has also been argued that the probability and range of such fires is not as predictable as damage from nuclear blast. Finally, it has been argued that for the specific targets of interest to war planners, the range of fire damage is not greater than the range of blast damage. However, the work of Harold Brode and his collaborators, as well as that of M.I.T. professor Theodore Postol, establishes that mass fire creates its own environment, and therefore is highly predictable. (Think of a piece of the sun being brought to earth.) Mass fire and extensive fire damage would occur in almost every circumstance in which nuclear weapons were detonated in a suburban or urban area. The circumstances in which mass fire damage would not occur—for example, during torrential rainstorms—are rare, and their probabilities are calculable in advance. Although weather can affect the range at which fires will occur, this variation can be reasonably well predicted. Nuclear fire damage is, in fact, as accurately predictable as blast damage: The uncertainties in the range at which mass fire would cause damage are no greater than the uncertainties associated with blast.[vi] Finally, many targets of interest to war planners, such as military, command, industrial, and political targets, are co-located in urban or suburban areas, and for nuclear weapons of approximately 100 kilotons or more, the range of severe damage from fire is likely to be significantly greater than the range of severe damage from blast. Under most circumstances, damage from mass fire would extend two to five times farther than blast damage.[vii]

Why were predictions of fire damage not developed for many years? The answer goes back to before World War II. Fundamentally, organizations can only solve the problems they set out to solve. Those involved in air target intelligence focused on being able to destroy specific installations with high-explosive blast weapons. Despite excursions into incendiary operations in World War II, the emphasis remained on precision targeting with high-explosive bombs. The emphasis on blast damage can vividly be seen in the end-of-the-war U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. According to a careful reading by Harold Brode, the multi-volume reports on Hiroshima and Nagasaki concentrated on structural damage due to blast. “[F]ire, although fully reported, was viewed as interfering with their objective of identifying and quantifying blast damage.”[viii]

Despite the inevitable area damage caused by nuclear weapons, the emphasis on precision targeting and blast damage carried over after the war into the early development of blast damage prediction in what became known as the VNTK system—the main tool for predicting damage, that is, blast damage from nuclear weapons for use in U.S. strategic nuclear targeting. There was no comparable development of fire damage prediction for many years following. Further, those involved in developing blast damage prediction—including such outstanding civil engineers as Nathan Newmark, a University of Illinois professor—were not intellectually equipped to predict fire damage. The whole process became self-reinforcing: what could be predicted seemed to those involved as inherently more predictable; what could not be predicted seemed inherently unpredictable.

 This is not to say that some physicists were unaware of nuclear fire damage. Indeed, President Eisenhower’s science adviser, George Kistiakowsky, wrote that because U.S. nuclear war planners “used blast effect as the only criterion of damage and neglected thermal radiation [and the] fires which will be caused by it . . . the question may be raised as to whether [it results] in overkill and will create unjustified additional ‘force requirements.’”[ix] Nonetheless, this insight was not used within the government to build expertise and develop knowledge about nuclear fire damage.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and then the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA), began to fund exploratory work for a small team led by Harold Brode at Pacific-Sierra Research to develop a methodology to predict fire damage for use in strategic nuclear targeting. Why did the government decide to fund this work—at Brode’s initiative? In fact, it was not unusual for DNA to fund exploratory work. The question might better be asked as to why Brode did not choose to work on the problem earlier. In any case, the interest generated by the “nuclear winter” controversy beginning in late 1983 resulted in further funding for Brode’s efforts—since where there’s smoke, there’s fire. By the early 1990s, Brode and his colleagues had teamed up with DNA, and also the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and nuclear war planners from the Joint Strategtic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) to predict combined fire and blast damage to 50 and then 300 example targets. By the end of this process, they had demonstrated a method not only for predicting fire damage, but for incorporating those predictions into the government’s VNTK system for predicting blast damage. Indeed, in early 1991, the government came close to incorporating fire damage predictions into nuclear war planning. However, the post-Cold War environment and an ultimate inability to persuade high-level military officers of necessity and feasibility led to the shelving of the project by year’s end.[x] Although interest in predicting fire damage was revived in the mid-1990s, work is no longer being done to develop a combined method to predict fire and blast damage for use in strategic nuclear war planning—although some interest continues in predicting collateral fire damage.[xi]  

It is consequential that U.S. nuclear war planning does not take full account of the physical devastation that would occur were nuclear weapons to be used. Yet the implications of Whole World on Fire are broader than this. Like the VNTK system based only on blast damage, the representation of the physical world in documents, routines, and technologies may be inaccurate or incomplete. Many examples abound, from the construction of the Titanic (shipbuilders did not understand just how brittle was the steel plate used), to the failed design of the Tacoma Narrows bridge, to the lack of anticipation that a jet aircraft flying into the World Trade Center could also ignite fire from the thousands of gallons of jet fuel released into the building. Such situations probably cannot be altogether avoided, but the immediate correction of serious design errors in the Citicorp Center in New York and the John Hancock Tower in Boston (both built in the 1970s), points to the general solution: democratic accountability and open professional oversight.

Lynn Eden, Ph.D., is associate director for research and senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford Institute for International Studies, Stanford University. Eden has written on U.S. foreign and military policy, arms control, and Cold War history. She was an editor of The Oxford Companion to American Military History (Oxford University Press, 2000). Whole World on Fire received the Robert K. Merton award for best book in science, knowledge, and technology from the American Sociological Association, 2004. Eden can be reached at lynneden@stanford.edu, (650)- 725- 5369. See also www.wholeworldonfire.com

[i] See for example Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan, eds., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 3d edition (Washington, D.C.: USGPO, 1977) and earlier editions dating from 1950.

[ii] Personal communication with author, October 19-20, 2004.

[iii] Thom Shanker, “12 Million Could Die at Once in an India-Pakistan Nuclear War,” New York Verdana,Arial, May 27, 2002; Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, “Bush Presses Pakistan on Kashmir and Orders Rumsfeld to Region,” New York Verdana,Arial, May 31, 2002; Todd S. Purdum with Seth Mydans, “U.S. Envoys Ready to Press Two Foes in Kashmir Crisis,” New York Verdana,Arial, June 3, 2002.

[iv] An extended discussion of mass fire can be found in Lynn Eden, Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), chap. 1.

[v] Eden, Whole World on Fire, p. 20.

[vi] See Eden, Whole World on Fire, chap. 1. Also, Gilbert Binninger, Roger Craver, and Suzanne Wright, Staff Officers’ Guide for Targeting Uncertainties, DNA-TR-89-115, prepared for Director, Defense Nuclear Agency, Washington, D.C. (n.p., January 1990), p. 47, argues that range predictions for airblast under free-field conditions “can be in error by as much as ± 30%.”

[vii] Ashton B. Carter, “Assessing Command System Vulnerability,” in Carter, John D. Steinbruner, and Charles A. Zraket, eds., Managing Nuclear Operations (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1987), pp. 561-563, 571-572. The specific targets of interest may be different today, but similar targets are to be found in urban and suburban areas. Regarding range of damage, see Binninger, Craver, and Wright, Staff Officers’ Guide, p. ix, discussed in Eden, Whole World on Fire, p. 246.

[viii] Comments by H.L. Brode on the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (1947), September 2004, enclosed in Harold Brode letter to author, 30 September 2004.

[ix] Kistiakowsky quoted in Eden, Whole World on Fire, p. 1.

[x] See the detailed narrative in Eden, Whole World on Fire, chaps. 9-10.

[xi] Eden, Whole World on Fire, chap. 10; personal communication, October 19-20, 2004.


Another View of the Role of Nuclear Power

Richard L. Garwin

I begin with a comment on a recent paper in P&S.1 In their paper, the authors argue that U.S. energy problems would be largely solved by the deployment of "proliferation-resistant fast reactors". In support of this argument, they make a number of serious errors in their discussion of the utility of reactor-grade plutonium (R-G Pu) in the fabrication of nuclear explosives:

"... weapons made from R-G Pu have a yield that is highly unpredictable-- they would be very likely to 'fizzle,' producing no mushroom cloud at all." (p. 10.2.8)

"... even as a terrorist weapon that will definitely fizzle ..." (p. 10.2.8)

It is not true that a terrorist weapon will "definitely fizzle" nor that a "fizzle" will produce no mushroom cloud at all. In a report of which both Michael M. May and I were coauthors2 (see pp. 33-34), the Committee on International Security and Arms Control notes,

"While this yield is referred to as the 'fizzle yield,' a 1-kiloton bomb would still have a radius of destruction roughly one-third that of the Hiroshima weapon, making it a potentially fearsome explosive. Regardless of how high the concentration of troublesome isotopes is, the yield would not be less. With a more sophisticated design, weapons could be built with R-G Pu that would be assured of having higher yields."

The report refers to a classified study of 1994 done for the Committee by LLNL3 What a 1-kt weapon would do if detonated in Manhattan is detailed in a recent paper.4 In sum, hundreds of thousands of people would die within minutes of the 1-kt explosion-- the minimum "fizzle" yields that could occur either with weapon grade Pu or R-G Pu. It would be a nuclear explosion with all its characteristics -- blast, fire, radiation, and severe fallout.

Surely the authors of (1) do not wish us to explain precisely how to make an even more effective weapon with R-G Pu.

My correction of these overstatements has more to do with the urgency of enhancing protection of separated R-G Pu (of which tens of tons-- enough to make thousands of nuclear weapons-- now exist in the UK, France, and Japan), than with the normal in-process characteristics of the pyro-processed material that is the subject of the Forum article.

There, though, the question is not what would be normal operation, but whether the line, in general, could be configured to separate purer Pu, thus reducing the challenge to building a nuclear weapon from the Pu in process or in storage. A 1-GWe reactor fissions about a ton of Pu (or U-235) per year, and so any prudent cycle would have a ton or more of Pu in readiness for fueling-- enough for 100 nuclear weapons.

Here, too, the authors overreach, quoting an emphatic judgment,

"... that the transuranic impurities render the material far too hot (thermally and radioactively), and far too many spontaneous neutrons, to make it at all feasible." (p. 11.1.6)

Despite the fact that this material has almost 1000 times the spontaneous neutron emission rate as R-G Pu (2 x 105 compared with 200 neutrons/sec/gram) the fizzle yield in an implosion device would not be reduced below that obtained with R-G PU-- that is, in Mark's illustration, 1-2 kilotons.

The thermal power is a greater problem. An R-G Pu implosion weapon core would give off less heat than a 100-W light bulb, whereas the pyro-processed core would deliver on the order of seven times that. This would make it unsuitable for the usual approach to construction, but, unfortunately, would by no means make it impossible to construct.

The Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) Pu ingot (as configured to feed a light water reactor (LWR) fuel-fabrication line) would provide some 50 R/hr at 0.5 m distance, in comparison with 100 times less radiation flux at that distance from R-G Pu. This would certainly add difficulties in the fabrication, and would make the core more readily detectable in case of attempted clandestine delivery.

I agree that it is "very much easier to make a bomb with highly enriched uranium than with R-G Pu [or, I add, with weapon-grade Pu) But "That route would surely be taken by any organization that did not have access to weapons-grade plutonium." would be true only if they did have access to HEU and not to R-G Pu.

The authors note that pyro processing in the form of electrochemical methods has had considerable development and demonstration and poses less proliferation hazard than does aqueous reprocessing. Still, with the electrochemical system they wrote that "... this threat, however remote, is justification for rigid safeguards on electrochemical separation facilities." (p. 10.2.4) Indeed, the chosen proliferation path in recent years appears to be the acquisition of "peaceful" nuclear technologies in the guise of a nuclear power system, and the covert or explicit denunciation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nonproliferation regime, converting those materials and facilities for enrichment or reprocessing to the production of weapons. This is the route followed by North Korea, and apparently begun by Iran.

Other statements in the article are also misleading, as

"The most credible nuclear terrorist threat, a dirty bomb, requires only access to spent nuclear fuel, and the controls on this material in various parts of the world are minimal." (p. 9.1.8)

Nuclear fuel is unlikely to be involved in a dirty bomb, because there are more conveniently available intense radioactive sources of Co-60 or Cs-137 used in industrial radiography devices or systems for sterilization of food.

A widely available and authoritative report on reprocessing technologies is available on the web.5 The STATS report (pp. 440-441) addresses Argonne National Laboratories (ANL) estimates of cost for pyro processing of LWR spent fuel, with a target of $350/kg HM (per kilogram of heavy metal contained in the spent fuel). Although such a number would require that pyro processing be six times cheaper than large-scale aqueous reprocessing, STATS quotes an estimate that "unit reprocessing cost for an investor-owned plant for pyrochemical processing of LWR spent fuel would be, instead, 57% greater than that for an aqueous reprocessing facility of the same throughput." Furthermore, the electrochemical pyro processing system has a great deal of flexibility so that it could very probably be operated to produce quite pure Pu, with little of the contaminating transuranics-- hence the need for "rigid safeguards."

Moving beyond nonproliferation, what is the cost of the advanced fast-reactors that would be required not only to produce electricity at acceptable cost, but also do this with the added burden of burning LWR spent fuel? Let me point the reader to two books that discuss these matters broadly.6,7

My own judgment is that fast reactors have a great deal to offer in the long-term future. But we will get there only with rigor in the development and evaluation of the reactor technology, cost, and safety-- and only if nonproliferation requirements are part of the design for any future reactor.

A great friend of nuclear power, Edward Teller, wrote,

"For the fast breeder to work in its steady-state breeding condition you probably need something like half a ton of plutonium. In order that it should work economically in a sufficiently big power-producing unit, it probably needs quite a bit more than one ton of plutonium. I do not like the hazard involved. I suggested that nuclear reactors are a blessing because they are clean. They are clean as long as they function as planned, but if they malfunction in a massive manner, which can happen in principle, they can release enough fission products to kill a tremendous number of people.

...But, if you put together two tons of plutonium in a breeder, one tenth of one percent of this material could become critical.

I have listened to hundreds of analyses of what course a nuclear accident can take. Although I believe it is possible to analyze the immediate consequences of an accident, I do not believe it is possible to analyze and foresee the secondary consequences. In an accident involving a plutonium reactor, a couple of tons of plutonium can melt. I don't think anybody can foresee where one or two or five percent of this plutonium will find itself and how it will get mixed with some other material. A small fraction of the original charge can become a great hazard."8

All these questions must be faced honestly and resolved collectively to the satisfaction of all technically capable, open-minded participants. They are not now being so addressed.

I agree that aqueous reprocessing has no place in the current commercial nuclear power industry. It is uneconomical compared with the once-through cycle and adds to the proliferation hazard. But if it were commercially viable, even with the increased costs that would be associated with effective nonproliferation measures, and if it were accompanied by political commitments on the part of those who have developed commercial nuclear power in conjunction with the IAEA, to return those facilities to their suppliers in case of denunciation of the IAEA, I would support even aqueous reprocessing for an economy that would ultimately involve both once-through reactors and breeders.

COMMENTS ON THE CURRENT SCENE.9 Nuclear power is in the news in the United States these days primarily because of controversy about shipment of spent fuel, storage of spent fuel in pools at the reactor, and dry-cask storage.

I have studied these questions not only for my book, but also for the National Research Council in conjunction with a book on terrorism,10 and I believe that there is no significant hazard for transport of spent fuel in approved U.S. dry casks. Experiments done by Sandia National Laboratories show that even with large shaped-charge explosive systems, it is difficult to volatilize and disseminate any significant amount of radioactivity. Dry casks are durable against being struck by an aircraft and, to my mind, are a far safer form of storage than are spent-fuel pools.

I believe that some independent analyses11 of possible vulnerability of spent-fuel pools to terrorist attacks are quite reasonable, and that neither the industry nor the NRC has provided anything better. As a result, I have long advocated taking this threat seriously and not only protecting pools against attack, but also maintaining on site and at centralized locations expedient repair kits and equipment that could stanch leaks of coolant and provide substantial coolant inflow in order to maintain the shielding and cooling of the spent fuel in case of explosive attack.

In "Making the Nation Safer," the National Research Council Committee writes, "... emergency cooling of the fuel in case of attack could probably be accomplished using 'low tech' measures that could be implemented without significant exposure of workers to radiation." The Nuclear Regulatory Commission states that it "agrees with this statement," and notes that its February 25, 2002 Order directed licensees to develop guidance and strategies to maintain or restore spent fuel cooling capabilities using existing or available resources." But unless the Commission and the industry acknowledge the vulnerability and its nature, it will be a very long time before effective post-attack spent-fuel cooling will be implemented.

As for attack on reactors by large aircraft or by light aircraft carrying explosives, I have published my judgment that explosives carried by light aircraft can be a considerable threat and that, too, should be taken seriously, with largely passive close-in protection against this specific threat.12

I have visited reprocessing plants in France and in the UK, and find them more serious potential sources of dispersed radioactivity than is an individual reactor. Then, too, there is opportunity for insider terrorist attack as well, a threat that need to be addressed with imagination.

As for the Yucca Mountain repository for commercial spent fuel, I believe that the decision procedure has proceeded at a glacial pace, and that engineering design of the emplacement lags far behind what is possible. At this late date, it is still not clear as to whether there will be backfill around the containers, or whether there will be "drip caps",or,if drip caps, whether they would be made of titanium alloy or (as I advocate) the equivalent of a tile roof, with overlapping, small, durable rock plates supported by coarse gravel. The benefit of tile over a fabricated drip cap is that it is redundant, and that water coming in is reliably shunted out, without vulnerability to single-point failure.

In sum, Yucca Mountain should be completed and storage begun, with provision for surveillance of the integrity of the entombed waste and reemplacement if necessary.

Successful civil nuclear electricity requires acceptable levels of cost, accident risk, proliferation hazard, and vulnerabilty to terrorism. "Cost" includes that of raw uranium, enrichment services, fabrication, waste disposal, and decommissioning. A useful current study on nuclear power, its technology, impact, and economics has recently been published by MIT.13 A 1-GWe plant (a million kW) operating at 90% capacity factor produces some 7.9TWh of electrical energy per year, that it can sell at about $0.06/kWh-- a gross income of $470 M. It pays a fee of 1 mill/kWh for a decommissioning sinking fund, and another 1 mill/kWh for the U.S. government to accept and dispose of the spent fuel-- $8 M/yr for each charge.

The fuel-cycle cost, including supply and disposal is typically 6 mill/kWh. But most of the cost of nuclear electricity is capital cost. Quite the opposite is true for natural gas, widely used in the United States for "peaking power," because the capital component of cost is small compared with the cost of fuel.

If instead of the current $30/kg for uranium in the form of "yellow cake," the cost rose to $130/kg, this would add about $1000 to the cost of a kilogram of reactor fuel. Since the yield of electrical energy is about 20 megawatt days per kg, the cost of the fuel would rise by about 2 mill/kWH, by any account affordable, even if not competitive, at some sites, with electricity from coal without a substantial carbon tax.

Since the "reserve" of terrestrial uranium is about 3 million tons at current prices (and 20-200 million tons at prices up to about $200/kg), and since each GWe reactor consumes about 200 tons of raw uranium per year (or 12,000 tons over its 60-year life), those interested in expanding nuclear energy ought to urge governments to support R&D into acquiring uranium from seawater, where there is a total of about 4 billion tons. Japan has a small program on seawater uranium, with costs projected somewhere between $100 and $1000/kg. It is clearly in the public interest to have a better understanding of the future supply.

In the meantime, with 300 1-GWe reactor equivalents operating in the world, the cost and supply of uranium is no problem.

As for "normal accidents," it is my judgment that any of the well-designed and widely deployed reactor systems operating in the world is adequately safe, when properly operated. The major assumption of proper operation is often not warranted, as is evident from the discovery in February 2002 that the Davis-Besse reactor (near Toledo, Ohio) had over the years developed a large hole penetrating substantially through the forged steel pressure vessel head, to the thin stainless-steel liner.

Terrorism is, unfortunately, a fact of modern life with the purpose of, and the potential for, targeting entire societies. It is no longer acceptable for the NRC to disclaim a responsibility in this area, with the statement, "the possibility of a terrorist attack ... is speculative and simply too far removed from the natural or expected consequences of agency action [ellipsis in original]".

Terrorism must be taken seriously not only for the civil nuclear establishment but also for various other elements of civil infrastructure. But that would take me too far afield in this article. We can talk about the future of nuclear power on the assumption that the NRC and other regulatory bodies worldwide take seriously the terrorist threat and implement adequate measures to prevent and respond to it (including capability for near instantaneous central response).

As indicated, there is no shortage of uranium at affordable prices, and therefore reprocessing of any type has no role in commercial light-water reactor systems. Nor does reprocessing substantially reduce the amount of heat in the spent fuel nor the cost of disposal. Yucca Mountain is designed to hold only 76,000 tons of spent fuel, which would accommodate only the output of existing reactors. Evidently a substantial expansion of world reactor capacity would require much more in the way of mined geologic repository capacity, which is needed in any case for the disposition of the vitrified fission product waste from reprocessing as practiced in France. Such repositories are planned there, as well.

The near-term solution is to remove the restrictions on transfer, between nations, of properly conditioned spent fuel, either from the once-through cycle or the vitrified fission product waste, so that one can enter an era of competitive, commercial, mined geologic repositories. The repository and the spent fuel forms would be approved by the IAEA, and backup to security would need to be provided by a consortium of nations under the authority of the United Nations.

Future reactors should be deployed underground to provide greater protection against terrorist attack. Robust types with enhanced protection against release of radioactive materials in case of accident or terrorist attack include the helium-cooled graphite reactors such as the high-temperature gas-turbine reactor (HTGR) and the pebble-bed reactor.

I am entirely open-minded about breeder reactors, or near-breeders coupled with accelerators, or (for the near-term) near-breeders whose neutron economy is enriched by feeding excess plutonium removed from nuclear weapons. Any breeders must be designed with a compatible fuel reprocessing and fabrication system, in which non-proliferation and robustness against accident and terrorism are important components.

In agreement with the authors of (1), I recognize that reprocessing is essential for such reactors, and I add that it offers, in principle, the possibility of lower costs than that for reprocessing of LWR fuel. This is because about 5 kg of spent LWR fuel must be reprocessed to substitute for 1 kg of fresh LWR fuel, whereas for a breeder, the ratio is much closer to 1:1. And the separation of fission products need not be the factor 107 achieved by the PUREX process, but a mere 100:1.

In conclusion, I judge that nuclear power has much to offer for the U.S. energy future, but industry and government the world over have much to do to protect reactors and other facilities against accident and terrorist attack, and to provide enhanced barriers so that nuclear power does not contribute to proliferation of nuclear weapons.


1 "Purex and Pyro are Not the Same," by Hannum, W.H. Marsh, G.E., Stanford, G.S. Physics & Society, July 2004, pp. 8-11.

2 "Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium," Report of the National Academy of Sciences, Committee on International Security and Arms Control, W.K.H. Panofsky, Chair, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, January 1994.

3 The footnote on p. 33 of (2) reads: “See W.G. Sutcliffe and T.J. Trapp, eds., ’Extraction and Utility of Reactor-Grade Plutonium for Weapons,’ Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, UCRL-LR-115542, 1994 (S/RD). For unclassified discussions, see J. Carson Mark, (’Explosive Properties of Reactor- Grade Plutonium,’ Science and Global Security, 4:11-128, 2003).” The footnote continues: “The Pu-240 content even in weapons-grade plutonium is sufficiently large that very rapid assembly is necessary to prevent preinitiation. Hence the simplest type of nuclear explosive, a 'gun type,' in which the optimum critical configuration is assembled more slowly than in an ’implosion type’ device, cannot be made with plutonium, but only with highly enriched uranium, in which spontaneous fission is rare. (This) makes HEU an even more attractive material than plutonium for potential proliferators with limited access to sophisticated technology. Either material can be used in an implosion device.”

4 "Nuclear and Biological Megaterrorism," by R.L. Garwin, presented at 27th Session of the International Seminars on Planetary Emergencies, Erice, Sicily, August 19-24, 2002, see www.fas.org/RLG (A shorter version was published in MIT's Sept. 2002 Technology Review, titled "The Technology of Megaterror" at http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/garwin0902.asp)

5 "Nuclear Wastes: Technologies for Separations and Transmutation," Committee on Separations Technology and Transmutation Systems (STATS), N.C. Rasmussen, Chair, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1996. (http://books.nap.edu/catalog/4912.html)

6 "Megawatts and Megatons: The Future of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons," by R.L. Garwin and G. Charpak, The University of Chicago Press, January 2003. (Note errata at www.fas.org/RLG)

7 "Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices, and Prospects," Second Edition, by David Bodansky (Springer-Verlag; November 30, 2004).

8 Edward Teller, "Fast Reactors: Maybe." Nuclear News (August 21, 1967).

9 "Science, Technology, Fission, and the Future," by R.L. Garwin, Keynote Speech presented at the American Nuclear Society Banquet, November 19, 2002. 10 "Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism," by L.M. Branscomb (Co-chair) and R.D. Klausner (Co-chair), et al, National Research Council of the National Academies, National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2002.

11 "Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States," by R. Alvarez, et al, April 21, 2003 (Published in Science and Global Security, 11:1-51,2003. See also NRC response in ibid, 11:203-211, 2003, and reply by R. Alvarez, et al, in ibid, 11:213-223,2003.

12 "Science,Technology, Fission, and the Future," by R.L. Garwin, Keynote Speech presented at the American Nuclear Society Banquet, November 19, 2002. 13 "The Future of Nuclear Power," J. Deutch and E.J. Moniz, Co-chairs, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003. http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/

Richard L. Garwin is IBM Fellow Emeritus at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, NY. He is a physicist, member of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. Since 1950 he has consulted with the Los Alamos National Laboratory on nuclear weapons technology and testing. He contributed to the early thermonuclear weapon design and has received from the US Government the Enrico Fermi Award, the National Medal of Science, and the R.V. Jones Foreign Intelligence Award. His biography and many papers are at www.fas.org/RLG.


Response to Garwin’s Paper

In his paper Another View of the Role of Nuclear Power, Dr. Garwin comments on the potential use of reactor-grade plutonium (R-G Pu) for nuclear explosives. We agree, of course, that one should keep in mind potential misuse of materials associated with nuclear power as well as with nuclear weapons. His remarks underscore the thrust of our previous paper, PUREX and PYRO Are Not the Same: if a technology can reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism or improve our energy posture or environment without increasing the threat of nuclear terrorism or nuclear- weapons proliferation, it should be pursued as a matter of urgent priority. Pyrometallurgical recycling can reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, improve our energy posture, and address constructively the issue of nuclear waste.

“My own judgment,” Dr. Garwin states, “is that fast reactors have a great deal to offer in the long-term future. But we will get there only with rigor in the development and evaluation of reactor technology, cost, and safety—and only if nonproliferation requirements are part of the design for any future reactor.” We concur. Dr. Garwin recognizes that the material from pyro recycle is a far greater challenge to a would-be bomb maker than what we now think of as R-G Pu, and that is important. Only very innovative people with extensive weapons-design experience would have a chance of effectively using this highly complex material.

And we fully agree that international safeguards of nuclear operations are essential, to prevent the “[conversion of] those materials and facilities for enrichment or reprocessing to the production of weapons.” The fast-reactor fuel cycle, however, requires neither enrichment nor pure plutonium—so development of either process would be ipso facto evidence of intention to proliferate.  

In discussing the relative economics of the pyro cycle, Dr. Garwin quotes the “authoritative” STATS report—whose pessimistic economic projections are based on obsolete data (see the detailed critique by Boardman et al1). We also note that Garwin’s discussion of the cost of nuclear power barely acknowledges the “externalities” associated with other forms of energy—hidden subsidies like the health effects of burning coal, or the impact on home heating costs when natural gas is used to produce electricity. Inclusion of those costs would make nuclear power look very good indeed.

Dr. Garwin notes that spent fuel is not likely to be the material of choice for a dirty bomb. This may or may not be the case, but he later expresses concern over the possible vulnerability of spent-fuel pools. Some would consider an attack on a spent-fuel pool as a form of a “dirty bomb.”

Missing from his comments is a sense of urgency. The nation needs to deal more effectively with the surfeit of weapons-usable materials and the accumulating spent fuel, while using nuclear power to help meet growing world-wide energy demands. An aggressive program to complete the demonstration of pyrometallurgical recycle technologies, including safeguards, offers the potential to move forward on all these issues. Doing nothing is not acceptable.

William H. Hannum has been a senior official with the Department of Energy; Gerald E. Marsh, retired from Argonne National Laboratory, is a physicist who served with the U.S. START delegation and was a consultant to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on strategic nuclear policy and technology for many years; George S. Stanford is a nuclear reactor physicist, now retired from Argonne National Laboratory after a career of experimental work pertaining to power-reactor safety.

1. Boardman, C. E., C. E. Walter, M.L. Thompson, and C. S. Ehrman, “The Separations Technology and Transmutation Systems (STATS) Report: Implications for Nuclear Power Growth and Energy Sufficiency.” On the Internet at <http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA396.html>.


Richard Garwin again:

I noted that the authors erred in their statements that weapons made from reactor-grade Pu (or, for that matter, from pyro-processed Pu) would have yields that were highly unpredictable and that a fizzle would produce "no mushroom cloud at all." In contrast, if such a weapon were detonated, it would produce a yield of at least one kiloton and in an urban environment immediately kill no fewer than 100,000 people. I judge that the authors now agree, since they took no issue with this point.

Similarly, I judge that the authors now apparently understand and agree that the highly enhanced neutron emission from normal pyro-processed Pu would not further reduce the yield of an implosion weapon below that from R-G Pu. It is false comfort to assume that weapon-design experience is helpful in this regard.

The authors have not replied to my question as to what it would take to reconfigure the pyroprocess line "to separate purer Pu, thus reducing the (heat)challenge to building a nuclear weapon from the Pu in process or in storage." Why not?

To classify an attack on a spent-fuel pool or nuclear reactor "as a form of a dirty bomb," confuses the situation and diverts attention from something that sorely needs to be addressed-- the reduction of hazard from (portable) radiological dispersal devices that might be explosive in nature but that might equally well simply be nebulizers or other means of dispersing radioactive materials.

I am not negative on the cost of pyro processing in the fuel cycle of a fast reactor itself that can itself be shown to be both safe and economical. I do believe that reprocessing of the spent fuel that already exists from lightwater reactors would add significantly to the cost of disposal. The authors counter with an approving reference to a February 2002 paper by C.E. Boardman, et al, which criticizes the STATS report estimate of reprocessing cost; Boardman, et al, argue that the lessons learned from development of three plants (the Japanese plant at Rokkasho-Mura being the latest) "would result in significantly lower unit reprocessing costs." But STATS in 1996 assumed for Rokkasho a range from $5.2 to $6.2 billion, and the 2004 official Japanese estimate is now 2.2 trillion yen or $20.5 billion. It is difficult to project a cost lower than the estimate based on $6 billion capital cost if the plant will now cost more than $20 billion for the same throughput.

I urge the reader to read the STATS report on the web (and to search it with the search engine provided there by the National Academies Press) and to access also the February 2002 Boardman reference. The urgency is to get the facts straight and to do the analyses that can be done with existing data, and then to do the needed experimental work on pyroprocessing and reactor design (not construction) until we find an approach that can lead to competitive energy supply, with consistent attention to all required costs and benefits.


 Oil, CO2, and the Potential of Nuclear Energy

 Robert W. Albrecht and David Bodansky

1. The relevance of nuclear power

           Hannan, Marsh, and Stanford (HMS) argued in the July 2004 issue of this newsletter for using nuclear energy in a fuel cycle based upon fast reactors and pyroprocessing.[1] We elaborate here on the potential of nuclear energy to address our key energy problems in a sustainable fashion.[2]

           The first of these problems is dependence on oil. Despite talk of conservation and “energy independence,” U.S. oil consumption has risen from 17.3 mbd (millions of barrels per day) in 1973 to 20.0 mbd for 2003 and net petroleum imports rose from 35% of consumption to 56%, for a cost in 2003 of $122 billion.[3] Without dramatic change, the situation will continue to worsen.  World dependence on oil from limited areas---primarily the Persian Gulf region---is particularly dangerous because it spawns conflict and transfers wealth to politically problematic oil producers.

           A major challenge is to develop alternatives to oil, which is uniquely easy to store, transport and use in transportation. A second major challenge is to restrain emissions into the atmosphere of CO2 and pollutants. Here, the easiest target is coal-fired electricity generation, which is the source of about one-third of U.S. CO2 emissions. A harder target is oil in transportation----the source of another third of CO2 emissions. While many other approaches can and undoubtedly will contribute to addressing these global challenges, the focus of this article is on the contribution that nuclear fission power could make in the United States.

           The most straightforward contribution is in electricity generation. Nuclear power, with 104 reactors and a capacity of 99 gigawatts-electric (GWe), now provides about 20% of U.S. electricity. Coal-fired generation provides about 50%. It could be replaced by the addition of 250 GWe of nuclear capacity.[4]